The African golden cat has a fur color ranging from chestnut or reddish-brown, grayish brown to dark slaty. Some are spotted, with the spots ranging from faded tan to black in color. In others the spotting pattern is limited to the belly and inner legs.
Its undersides and areas around the eyes, cheeks, chin, and throat are lighter in color to almost white. Its tail is darker on the top and either heavily banded, lightly banded or plain, ending in a black tip.
Cats in the western parts of its range tend to have heavier spotting than those in the eastern region. Two color morphs, a red and a grey phase, were once thought to indicate separate species, rather than color variations of the same species. Grey skins have hairs that are not pigmented in their middle zones, whereas hair of red skins is pigmented intensively red. Hair of melanistic skins is entirely black.
Skins of African golden cats can be identified by the presence of a distinctive whorled ridge of fur in front of the shoulders, where the hairs change direction.
It is about twice the size of a domestic cat. Its rounded head is very small in relation to its body size. It is a heavily built cat, with stocky, long legs, a relatively short tail, and large paws. Body length usually varies within the range of 61 to 101 cm (24 to 40 in). Tail length ranges from 16 to 46 cm (6.3 to 18.1 in), and shoulder height is about 38 to 55 cm (15 to 22 in). The cat weighs around 5.5 to 16 kg (12 to 35 lb), with males being larger than females.
Overall, the African golden cat resembles the caracal, but has shorter untufted ears, a longer tail, and a shorter, more rounded face. It has small, rounded ears. Its eye color ranges from pale blue to brown.